Virginia's War Stories: The Civil War sites just a short drive from Washington DC
The socialite wives wore their finest gowns, and the menfolk - congressmen and other influential Federalists - were resplendent in frock coats and tall hats, waving from carriages clattering out of Washington DC, intent on cheering victorious Union troops who would bring a quick end to America's fledgling Civil War.
Imagine how this traffic jam of early participants in 'disaster tourism' met a road crammed with the walking wounded, along with thousands of Federal soldiers fleeing chaos after two armies of a divided nation clashed for the first time on the fields overlooking Manassas (Bull Run).
Here in the green and verdant hilly landscape of Virginia, a gentle summer breeze whispers through the trees. The other sounds are of corncrakes and muted voices of visitors, touching cannons that erupted more than 150 years ago.
A modest timber farmhouse - today reproduced - stands at the epicentre of the Battle of First Bull Run. It was occupied by an 85-year-old bedridden widow, Judith Carter Henry, who was fatally injured in the crossfire - the only civilian killed during the first wave of fighting.
The first battles swept away the notion of a quick war, explains guide Henry Elliot. He adds: "Don't let these pretty fields fool you, because we are standing on some of the most blood-stained ground anywhere in history". Over 622,000 lives were lost - nearly as many as in every war Americans have fought in since, combined.
Civil War history, stories, sites and monuments are found everywhere in Virginia, only an hour's drive from downtown Washington DC, we discover touring tranquil countryside and authentic towns like Manassas, Occoquan, Woodbridge and Fredericksburg.
"Only in America," I can't help thinking as we visit Ben Lomond, one of the gracious antebellum mansions turned into Confederate hospitals. The awful stench of gangrene has been piped in by a company creating delicious coffee and freshly baked bread aromas elsewhere!
Screams of patients and the bustle of a war field hospital are realistically conveyed via audio, with plenty of surgical instruments, roughly hewn crutches and fake-blood-stained lengths of cloth lying around. Chloroform and ether were available, "but not enough to knock patients out completely", we're told.
Occupying the house later on, some Union soldiers wrote offensive graffiti, and a few recorded their last wills and testaments on Ben Lomond's walls.
In need of fresh air with the lingering whiff of gangrene in my nostrils, I take to the water with Penguin Paddling in Occoquan (penguinpaddling.com), steering my kayak past wharfs once lined by grist mills and tobacco warehouses where ships loaded bales of cotton bound for England.
Fredericksburg, site of another famous Civil War battle, and where George Washington spent much of his earlier life, is a jewel in the crown filled with beautiful federalist-style architecture. Our trolley tour driver-guide John Gaston, whose forefathers fled the famine in Ireland, pulls up at the lovely cottage George Washington bought for his mother Mary (whose modern likeness appears, waving from the front door in period costume).
For 100 years Richmond was the centre of the second largest slave market in the US. A slave trail with markers tells the story, while a flood protection wall pays tribute to the "Irish indentured workers" also involved in its construction.
Careytown, a colourful district of restaurants and lively bars, adds to this Thomas Jefferson-designed city, along with Richmond's wealth of excellent museums.
Richmond is unique in that it's the only city where you can go white-water rafting right into downtown. Riverside Outfitters (riversideoutfitters.net) took us on a rollercoaster ride over Class 2 to 4 rapids on the historic James River, adding thrills and knowledge to the trip. Paddling through the rapids, we passed the island where 15,000 Union soldiers were miserably incarcerated, and the bridge over which the populace of Richmond fled as Confederate glory ended in ashes.
Isabel flew with United Airlines (united.com), which operates daily from Dublin to Washington Dulles from €473 return in winter. From Dulles to Virginia, use a hire car, taking interstates 95 and 64 into the Richmond region (frequent trains run from Washington DC-Richmond, too).
For further information see capitalregionusa.org or VisitRichmondVA.com. For somewhere to stay in Fredericksburg, try the centrally-located Courtyard by Marriott Historic District (from €122; marriott.com/Friedericksburg).